Malcolm McWhannell: Labouring for Others

For many years, after the humblest of starts, Malcolm McWhannell has undertaken a formidable workload for the betterment of the crane industry. By GAVIN RILEY.

WHEN A TEENAGE Malcolm McWhannell entered the construction industry as a labourer 38 years ago, he had no idea what he wanted to achieve. He was attracted only by machinery and the great outdoors.

Malcolm joined Brian Perry Civil in Hamilton straight from Hillcrest High.

“I wanted to work outside and that was pretty much it. Being a labourer paid 30 cents an hour more than a mechanic apprenticeship I was offered. Back in those days that was a considerable amount. I didn’t have any vision as to where I wanted to go or be. I was a little bit lost.”

Contrast that with the Malcolm McWhannell of today – Fletcher Construction technical adviser, Crane Association past president, tireless worker for the betterment of his industry ­– and it’s plain he wasn’t lost for long.

He quickly progressed to operating cranes and all types of heavy plant. After about 10 years he took up a foreman’s role in general construction, moved into piling work, and when Brian Perry was taken over by Fletcher Infrastructure in 1985, he was transferred to the new branch in Auckland “where all the piling work was”.

He remained a foreman for a number of years, though “for quite some years I jumped into cranes whenever we had a tricky situation or were short of operators, so I didn’t make a clean break from cranage. Even now I still keep my hand in, such as on a job in Tonga a couple of years ago when I spent a considerable time on a crane which had a clam shell.”

Malcolm progressed from foreman to supervisor, then held a superintendent position on the Northport development and a number of wharf and construction projects around the country. About 10 years ago he was given the title of technical adviser.

He describes the role this way: “I would sit in on tendering processes to check that our measures, equipment and productivities assigned at tender time were correct. Then if I wasn’t involved in a particular project myself, I would get around the traps where people were having trouble, work through the methodology, and work out a way to fix the issue.”

These days, he adds, he has a second business card. “In the past three or four years I’ve switched back into a major project senior superintendent role where I help set up jobs and either then step back or move onto the next one. I helped set Waterview up from the piling foundations perspective and I’ve been down to McKay’s Crossing at Peka Peka for the expressway there and assisted in getting that underway.

“I’m now pulling out of there quietly and am in the process of setting up an $80 million wharf job in Vanuatu. I’ll go there for six to nine months to help get that off the ground.

“I’ve spent seven or so years in the Islands. I’ve done a lot of work on wharves and bridges in Fiji, Tonga, the Solomon Islands, Western Samoa and American Samoa. I’ve been around a bit.”

He sure has. Earlier major projects in his long career include the installation of twin gas lines at Marsden Point, the upgrade of the Cook Strait cable, building the new wharf for the 2000 America’s Cup challenge, and construction of the Tauranga Harbour Link.

Despite being something of an ‘everywhere man’ in his work, Malcolm has found time to make an outstanding contribution to serving the crane industry. He was elected to the Crane Association executive in 2001, was president from 2007-2010, and although stepping down from the council in 2011, he continues to be of help, assisting with the rewriting of the crane safety manual, being involved with drafting codes of practice, and acting as a sounding board for the association.

He was on the board of the old Opportunity Training ITO, has an assessor role in cranes and rigging with the Skills ITO, and is a national evaluator/moderator with Skills. Along with Crane Association representatives, he is a member of the systems review group which evaluates industry standards and national certificates and looks for opportunities for trainees to achieve recognition for their competencies.

He is also on the crane leadership forum committee which considers with WorkSafe and industry leaders where the industry will be in five to 10 years’ time – which leads him to believe the sector will suffer from too many employers being prepared to carry out only the minimum compliance requirements in the areas of training and competence.

Somehow, in addition to that workload, he found time to head Fletcher’s and Brian Perry’s crane and drill-rig training/assessing programme from 1995 till several years ago, and in 2013 he was judged by Skills and the Crane Association to be the Crane Trainer of the Year.

Malcolm describes the Crane Association’s work as tireless but insufficiently appreciated. “I know the industry as a whole doesn’t appreciate what is going on behind the scenes and what the Crane Association is trying to do for the entire industry. If industry members united, the Crane Association would be one hell of an organisation and would pack a huge punch. It’s unfair that it’s just a few who keep battling away trying to assist the industry as a whole.”

Malcolm attributes his remaining with one employer for so many years to the strong culture existing within Brian Perry Civil and to the versatility and vast array of work which Perry and Fletcher offer all around the country. “There’s a huge amount of opportunities for individuals within the company. There are many doors you can kick open and head on a good career path. They actually encourage you to look for career paths. And they pay pretty reasonable money, too.”

When he’s not on the road serving employer or industry, Malcolm, 54, lives in Auckland with his wife Julie and pursues his long-time hobbies of big-game and light-tackle fishing, and hunting. The couple have a daughter, who is going through the process of joining the Police, and a schoolboy son, who was in the Chiefs’ under-16 rugby team last year and is now hoping to make the under-17 side.

Malcolm says his long-time striving to improve his sector of the construction industry is “still a passion of mine”. But there’s no deep philosophy behind it, simply this: “I like to see people come through. I was given the opportunity when I was a young fellow, so I like to ensure I can give other young jokers opportunity and advice where I can. I’ve got no fast and hard credentials to my name. It’s just all experience and opportunity.”

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